The George Hotel has for decades been a reliable stalwart of Yarmouth. But this year, any metaphorical cobwebs have been blown away. A new broom has swept through the venue, boutiquifying the bedrooms, George-ing up the staircase, and with imminent plans to Italianate the garden too.
Under the guiding hand of new proprietor Howard Spooner, The George has been rebranded as a hotel and beach club. Traditionalists may shake their heads at talk of a hot tub and – gasp – a television in one of the lounges, but assurances have been made that the venue won’t become party-central for the DFL set, despite Mr Spooner’s well-publicised connections with the younger royals. When we read that the Island’s very own celebrity chef Robert Thompson was back on board, followed by the appointment of Tom Axford as head chef, it wasn’t long before we popped in to try some of the promised “unfussy” dining. We’ve enjoyed many impressive meals created by Tom when in the kitchen at Brading’s Kynge’s Well pub, so we were keen to see what he could do in the new, grander George.
We dined in the conservatory, with its wonderful view of the Solent and Lymington beyond. The menu was easy to navigate; sectioned by price and also themed. ‘From the land’ was one category and ‘from the farm’ another, to distinguish between meat-free and meatier offerings – although the headings could have probably be used for either. ‘Freshwater and sea’ could possibly have been four words, as there probably isn’t a great deal of local food produced in the Island’s westerly village. No matter; certainly the hotel’s website trumpets the “wonderful natural Isle of Wight larder”, although it would have been nice to have a bit more provenance on some of the dishes, rather than just ‘local’.
Cat particularly enjoyed her starter. A bundle of local asparagus, cooked to the perfect texture; not too bendy and without any woodiness, served with a soft-boiled soy egg, and a good dollop of sesame and ginger mayonnaise. The soy and sesame were notable flavours in this pleasurable spring dish.
Our friends were slightly puzzled by their resilient cuttlefish crackers, but Matt ignored their werretting and cracked on with his promising smoked haddock carpaccio. This was a great, generous and sparky starter. A liberal handful of bright green peas and oodles of fresh pea shoots were shot through with slivers of delicious smoked fish.
Crab linguine was not available so Cat took her second choice, day-boat catch (at market price). Yarmouth’s waters are probably more famous for yachting and drug smuggling than its fishing fleet, but the sea bass will have come ashore somewhere and Cat was pleased that it had made its way to her plate. The whole fish was presented simply in a puddle of lemon butter, with a twirl of pea shoots, half a seared lemon and a scattering of salty capers. A little too simply for twenty-four quid. No carbs nor veg (unless you count the pea shoots). Thankfully a bowl of truffle and pecorino chips was offered as compensation for the unavailable crab, and some tenderstem broccoli arrived unordered but we ate it anyway. With a spoonful of the rich and creamy French-style peas, this was a fish and chip supper anyone would be delighted to eat, though at a total retail price of £35.85 (if you include the broccoli) it should have been eased into Cat’s mouth by a succession of hummingbirds.
Presumably in keeping with its new ethos of being a fun venue, Matt’s local buttermilk fried chicken wrap required a bit of reconstruction before being eaten with his hands. The wrap was delivered unwrapped; flat, topped with two chunks of fried chicken, some charred lettuce, crispy pancetta and smoked anchovy. Once assembled it was a clunky thing to eat, and whilst yes, that is how wraps work, the streetfood vibe felt incongruous in such a smart dining room. The dry and mild wrap could have done with a squirt of zinger sauce to liven it up and make it hold together. Luckily those excellent creamy peas were to hand.
There were plenty of staff on deck at The George and we had attention from bar crew, the maitre d’ in his statement trousers, plus chef himself. It was lively, cheerful, if not entirely coherent service, but everything arrived eventually and from our point of view was well worth the wait.
Having got so far down the menu we went for the hat-trick and ordered dessert. Cat’s dark chocolate and salted caramel mousse was thick, rich and almost black. The intensity of the chocolate, plus the salty topping and powdered roasted peanuts tussled for attention in Cat’s mouth – and that was before she’d inserted the sugar-glazed banana. It was a fabulous end to the meal, even if its plate did look like an ironed brain. Goddards Fuggle De Dum Sponge proved to be a take on tiramisu that Matt, normally a pudding-skeptic, couldn’t get enough of. This innocuous-looking dessert was so rich and sweet that it seemed almost too much – but not quite. Instead of marsala wine there was a powerful syrupy sauce that must have been the Goddards – a clever trick but also a stunningly successful one.
Asparagus and soy egg starter £10
Smoked haddock starter £11
Day boat catch £24
Chicken wrap £13
French peas side £3.95
Truffle chips (complimentary)
Broccoli side £3.95
Chocolate mousse £10
Goddards sponge £9
So, has The George embraced its young fresh look with style and grace, or it is trying too hard, like your uncle with an ill advised skullet and cowboy boots? Top marks will undoubtedly go to our food. Cat’s was right between her eyes (or at least that hole a few inches below them). Fresh asparagus, soft egg and the tenderest of white fish were all expertly executed by a skilled hand in the kitchen. The sesame and ginger mayonnaise was splendid and the French peas too, were noteworthy. Matt’s delight at that impressive and innovative sponge pudding, was an end to the meal he won’t forget for a long time; and the cheerful carpaccio starter seemed the reflect the new fun, optimistic feel of the place.
The prices at first glance seemed not unreasonable and smaller plates were available, but things soon added up. Matt’s £11 starter was a bit of a shocker, and that £24 sea bass was really taking the biscuit, particularly as it came almost unaccompanied – there’s unfussy and there is incomplete. If your main course needs a side dish then it really ought to come with one included. No exceptions, not even when the food is as good as this. Years ago when we harrumphed at another Island hotel which served dinner without carbs or greens, they actually changed their menu. We had hoped those days were over.
Nonetheless, we really enjoyed our dinner at The George. The last time we ate there, five years earlier, was in the austere Isla’s, a hushed and reverential environment. This year’s rebranded brasserie is very different. The lively and upbeat transformation has actually worked, and the new kitchen is turning out some impressive work. Our advice is to choose carefully from the menu as some of these dishes are better than others, but the good ones are so good it’s worth it. Oh, and do take a big pile of money when you go. You’re going to need it.
This is the full-length version of the review first published in the Isle of Wight County Press.
- Some fabulous flavours
- Local ingredients
- Laid back vibe
- Those prices